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On sultry Saturday nights in Havana, thousands of young men and women -- including hundreds of gay men, a few lesbians, and many, many beautiful transsexuals and drag queens -- arm themselves with rum, boom boxes, and guitars, transforming the Malecón, a four-mile stretch of the city’s north-shore seawall, into a boisterous, joyous outdoor cruise bar. Diesel exhaust from 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs and boxy, rusted Ladas mixes with cigar smoke and surprisingly sexy cheap cologne. For the most part, the gay element of the crowd consists of flamboyant young queens and tough, handsome machos who wouldn’t be out of place in any urban setting from Miami to New York. A roving gay party is spontaneously assembled every weekend, though the exact whereabouts is kept under wraps until the last minute in order to avoid a raid by the police under the pretext of enforcing Cuba’s antiprostitution laws and the selectively enforced laws governing freedom of assembly. Open flirtation, even cruising, is an accepted practice on the Malecón. A segment of the young heterosexual male population called jineteros, who would be horrified to hear themselves described as hustlers, are ready to take up for an evening with foreign gay male tourists on the assumption that some sort of gift -- from cigarettes to T-shirts to a meal to money -- will exchange hands as a matter of courtesy.

It strikes an onlooker as poignant that all this celebration happens within sight of the 16th-century El Morro fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory near the entrance of the Bay of Havana, where openly gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas was jailed for two years in the 1970s for “ideological deviation” -- a post-revolutionary code for open homosexuality -- and for unlawfully publishing his books abroad. As the light fades completely from the sky, El Morro itself seems to recede into the darkness like a bad memory, leaving only the revelry of the Malecón.

While authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have extolled the worldly sophistication of Havana nightlife, homosexuality was only decriminalized in Cuba in 1979, following decades of harsh judicial treatment. The very real dangers associated with public displays of same-sex affection increase exponentially the further one travels from the urban core of Havana, but Cuban attitudes towards its LGBT minority have evolved, much in part to an unexpected and powerful ally.

Mariela Castro Espín is a slender, pale, and elegant mother of three children. Married to an Italian photographer, she is straight, even though some Havana gossips have suggested otherwise. She also happens to be the 47-year-old daughter of President Raúl Castro, who last year officially succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, as president of Cuba. As director of the government-run National Center for Sex Education, or CENESEX, Castro Espín has used her guile -- and her dynastic clout -- to push for gay rights in a country where hard-labor, “reeducation” camps were once vaunted as an antidote to homosexuality. “Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a ‘man,’” she says. “It’s part of the masculine role. Boys are taught to have violent reactions so they can show their masculinity. Boys are destroyed in this country this way."

Castro Espín and I are sitting in the drawing room of a former palazzo that now houses governmental offices in Havana’s diplomatic Vedado neighborhood, about 15 minutes by car from the Malecón. With its velvet and damask antique French furniture bordering on threadbare, the room’s Norma Desmond grandeur is a reminder of Cuba’s aristocratic, pre-revolutionary past; polished marble floors gleam coolly against the patina of the cracked, ornate gold leaf and boiserie wall paneling

Press photographs rarely capture Castro Espín’s sense of humor. “Please make sure [The Advocate] doesn’t write that I live here,” she says dryly to photographer Byron Motley through the translator with a flash of wry, socialist wit, while posing gamely at the head of an opulent staircase.

As recently as a few years ago, it would have been unheard of for the daughter of the sitting Cuban president to sit for an exclusive four-hour interview with a journalist from an American LGBT newsmagazine like The Advocate -- never mind an accession on her part to the magazine’s request that there be no official government representatives present at the interview, no one from her office in attendance, or no pre-approved questions.

Tags: World